Faster than light (FTL) travel has been called the greatest innovation in the history of mankind, ahead of even fire and the quantum processor in its significance. While FTL travel must thank those and many other technological advances for its own existence, it is difficult to say anything changed the course of human history like the ability to practically explore and travel between the stars in a single objective human lifetime.
All great accomplishments require sacrifices in order to realize them, thus more than anything else, FTL travel must thank the courageous men and women who gave their lives in its name and development. The current prosperity of humankind and the Federation itself rests on their proud shoulders.
-Donald Hanes, "Technology and the Galactic Federation: The Legacy of Giants", 1687 NE
Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russian Republic
May 19, 2061 CE
It was a pretty day in the Archangel Region of the Russian Republic but not a historic day by any means.
The ship on the launch strip was a part of the eighth mission in a planned series of twelve designed to test the effects of a particular relativity-minimizing drive on human beings. The technology itself had existed for well over a decade in the form of unmanned probes and as a result, was no longer especially interesting to the general public. Sending human crews into space had also recently become considered commonplace, so there was little fanfare and media coverage surrounding the launch of this one, especially when the launch site was so far away from most ground-based news sources. The event was a back-pager and bottom-linker, ignored by the average reader who was more interested in learning the latest rumors of the circumstances surrounding the death of retired American actress Ashley Olsen, found dead in a Baghdad hotel May 17. But the multi-national group of astronauts who had volunteered for the mission had expected — and accepted — that they would be overlooked and felt little bitterness about it.
The ship that would bring the remainder of the mission's crew into space was only one component of the larger vessel that had already been hauled into space and fully assembled, excepting the section they brought to complete it. Twelve sat in the shuttle's seats and twenty-seven more waited for them in orbit, a total crew of thirty-nine. Most were Chinese, Russian, and American, with Japanese and Europeans filling out the rest. As this was considered the responsibility of the Russian branch of the World Space Organization, the official language was also Russian, though most of the astronauts could already speak several other languages — including Russian — passably. The captain of the ship was also operational commander of the mission and obligatorily, a Russian man, but no one else in the crew had met him or knew much about him. Being led by an enigma would be cause for nervousness under normal circumstances, but relatively-minimizing drives were still quite an enigma themselves; the captain was a human being and obviously qualified if he had been chosen for this assignment. That was reassurance enough.
In two of the ship's back seats, a Chinese and American chatted quietly, bemoaning the current state of Major League Baseball, especially now that the Nanjing Imperials were no longer the dynasty they'd once been. Both had had a good laugh as they realized the unintended pun of that. Next to them, the three Japanese astronauts were engaged in a superficially-related debate over the role of their dynasty's first Empress in the economic bust of the early twenties, while further to the front, the Russians and Americans were attempting to explain the long term technological and sociopolitical benefits of the Cold War to the remaining Europeans who steadfastly held the position that it had all been nothing but a Super Powered pissing contest, with the rest of the world being the recipients of said piss. Up in the very front, the captain sat silently, occasionally smiling when those nearby appealed for his opinion on the issue, but saying nothing. Eventually the rest of the crew realized he wasn't any good for conversation and left him to think in peace.
All of the volunteers on this mission — and in fact the entire series of missions — had been screened for a number of different factors, mostly relating to their measured and projected performance in certain situations, but also relating to their personal lives.
This wasn't at all a suicide mission, but circumstances required that it be treated as such. There were thousands of crucial components to every spaceship, any of them working improperly or calibrated inaccurately could cause the death of everyone onboard. And they wouldn't be traveling in just any in any spaceship; they were to be in one that attempted to twist fundamental physical laws, bend them as far as they would go before they finally broke. This mission would be the farthest yet of the series, though unmanned probes had been sent farther and were expected back any time now. But what if something went wrong or what if there was some subtle effect on humans that hadn't been accounted for? That was the purpose of the mission: to find out. All of the volunteers had understood that. All of the volunteers were childless and single, without any close siblings, and with parents who had already passed away. They had had to say goodbye to close friends, pets, and acquaintances, but that was all. Most of the volunteers expected to return home very soon, at least as time passed for them.
Relativity-minimizing drives did just that, minimize the objective time a journey took compared to the subjective time the passengers felt. But the Plutonian voyage—the second unmanned mission in the series—had still taken six objective months, round trip, even if the probe's internal clock had measured it to be only minutes. The project heads and scientists had refined the technology a good deal since then but this mission would be going thousands upon thousands of times as far as Pluto and exploring an alien world before turning back. How long would it seem to those on board? How long would it be to those on Earth?
The captain thought about those things as he sat in his seat awaiting the launch. He thought about them because unlike the rest of his crew, he had been ordered to serve in this mission and thus was not held to its screening parameters. He had a wife. He had a daughter who would be seven in July. By the time he got back, who knew how old she'd be? Would he just miss a few birthdays, as the scientists' best-case projections indicated? Would he come back to find her dating? Married? What of his wife? How would she cope with his absence? She would raise their daughter by herself with the help of his government paycheck but that wouldn't be enough to cover all expenses. How long would she wait on him before she moved on?
The captain sat in his chair and mulled over these things while the ship sat on the launch strip, thinking that perhaps if he did something impulsive and inappropriate right now he could get kicked off of the mission and go back to his family, to live with them, whatever that disgraceful life would be. But he knew he wouldn't. Captain Vladimir Telander knew why he had been designated to this position, knew he was a competent commander, and knew that he owed the Republic this small sacrifice, as large a sacrifice as it felt to him. He would not disgrace himself or his country; it wasn't even a viable option. But he still thought about it.
Finally, the countdown commenced, the ship tore down the runway and up into the air, accelerated until it left the atmosphere, and later met the vessel in orbit waiting for it, fully assembled, excepting the section contained in the Earth-launched ship itself.
A few hours later, the space faring vessel was fully assembled without exception and set off toward its destination at a speed beyond speed.
More importantly, however, video evidence of Ashley Olsen's corpse became available to public, quickly shattering the previous record for most downloaded media file of all time.